Too often political speeches aim to temporarily rouse the passions of those who listen without making any attempt to be a record for posterity. To be prescient requires an understanding of human nature and the wisdom to foresee the future that is beyond the ability of many who engage in rhetoric. This cannot be said of Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, and his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, delivered all the way back in 1852 but which remains timely even now.
The speech is a great piece of oration. It deserves to be read for the strength of its purpose and the clarity of its vision. Here are the two things in it that stood out for me, aspects that resonate in today’s world.
One, when Douglass refuses to engage in argument and reason with those who support slavery. Instead, he says he will rebuke such people and lay bare their faults as individuals. These are his words:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
This is a position that is reminiscent of many of the so-called liberal elites today (exemplified, in the US at least, by several late-night show hosts). The reasoning goes that the people you are in opposition to hold values that you disdain so much that it makes no sense to try and reason with them, to engage in a conversation with the aim of persuading them to your line of thinking. Is this the best method to adopt? I do not have an answer to this yet.
Two, and a more unambiguous lesson at that, is that Douglass is critical of his nation’s hypocrisy when it comes to liberty: extolling it as one of the foundations on which the nation is built and at the same time depriving millions of their liberty under the institution of slavery. He does not mince his words when talking about these national inconsistencies. If someone were to utter the sort of harsh words that Douglass uses today, they are likely to be branded unpatriotic. But as Douglass’ example shows, calling out the ills of your nation is an act of patriotism itself. For only when you know where you are going wrong as a nation can you correct your course.
Note: For more information about Douglass’ life, I would recommend this episode from BBC’s In Our Time.